Select Committee on Religious Offences in England and Wales Written Evidence

Submission from mediawatch-uk

  In response to a call for evidence the following points have been submitted by mediawatch-uk to the Select Committee on Religious Offences. We hope these are helpful as the Committee deliberates on this important matter.

  1.  The noble purpose and intention of the law against blasphemy is to protect the sensibilities of Christian believers and sympathisers from gratuitous offence and scurrilous attack, and thereby, to maintain tranquillity and public order.

  2.  The law, which is essentially a public order measure, as a matter of right, should be amended to safeguard the sensibilities of the adherents of other major religions.

  3.  The successful prosecution of James Kirkup's poem, The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name published by Gay News in 1976, established that this ancient law could be effectively invoked against the publication of intemperate literature and false assertions calculated to cause offence. (We note that this poem, in a challenge to Britain's blasphemy laws, is to be publicly recited on the steps of a central London church on 11 July.)

  4.  In recent times the media, film and television in particular, has been responsible for considerable—and continuing—offence by the inclusion in programmes of the scripted use, as expletives, of Holy Names, Jesus and/or Christ, on their own or in combination with obscenities. For Christians this is extremely hurtful and offensive and almost entirely unnecessary without dramatic integrity or purpose or justifiable in any context. Many people regard this as discriminatory and it would certainly be regarded as such if applied to other widely venerated religious figures.

  5.  We draw attention to the BBC's Producers' Guidelines excellent provisions on blasphemy (see Appendix 1). In our opinion these were completely disregarded by the transmission of part of James Kirkup's poem in the fourth part of Taboo screened in December last year (see Appendix 2). Without the additional safeguard of the law the very people for whom they were intended can, apparently, disregard the BBC's non-statutory Guidelines.

  6.  We believe that the abolition of the existing law relating to religious offences would give rise to an upsurge of gratuitous offence and scurrilous attack. The freedom of religious believers not to have their beliefs intemperately ridiculed and their feelings offended would be so seriously eroded that their basic human rights could be placed in jeopardy. Whilst we accept that the Human Rights Act sets out to secure freedom of expression this freedom is not absolute nor is it without conditions. Freedoms come with responsibilities and both should have equal force in law.

  7.  Given that the modern means of social communication are so pervasive any offence is caused to millions of people. A primary objective of the law relating to religious offences should be to prevent the cause of widespread offence by the powerful media. We acknowledge that the Government's draft Communications Bill provides, in Clause 212, safeguards against religious bigotry but we believe that this needs to be buttressed by effective law. We believe that this objective, more than any other, would win broad public support and would promote respect, civility and generally advance human progress.

  8.  Religious hatred is an attitude of mind that sometimes finds expression in criminal acts and it is these acts which should be—and are—pursued through the law. A new criminal offence of "incitement to religious hatred" may prove to be desirable just as "incitement to racial hatred" has become a necessary buttress against racial discrimination. We believe that blasphemy in the media is a form of gratuitous discrimination that is just as unacceptable. The offence might be defined using other statutes enacted to prevent discrimination as models.

26 June 2002

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